There is one area of the fall-arrest procedure that is lacking in many companies. It’s not the part where a worker is saved from a deadly fall; there are many products now that protect workers at heights. It is the part after the fall: The time when you would hope to witness a well-organized rescue plan while a worker hangs suspended, held aloft by a thin nylon strap or steel wire. Even companies who believe they have excellent safety standards often lack cohesive planning for recovery once a worker has fallen.
Rescue plans don’t have to be complicated. In some situations even a portable ladder can do the job. Simple plans do work, but they need to be noted and practiced before an accident happens for them to be completed swiftly when an emergency arises.
Many companies’ only rescue plan is to summon the local fire department by dialing 911. There are many reasons a 911 rescue may not work properly: local rescue may not have the proper equipment for retrieving someone high up; they may also lack proper training for confined space or tower rescue. Whatever the reason, local emergency services may not be as good as onsite planning where the particular circumstances of the worksite can be taken into consideration before there is an emergency. A solution that is developed while making an onsite rescue plan may not be so obvious during the tension and confusion of an accident or injury situation.
How Prompt Should A Rescue Be?
The OSHA guidelines on exactly how fast a suspended worker should be rescued are fairly vague, essentially stating that employers must provide ‘prompt rescue’ when a fall occurs. But the exact definition of ‘prompt’ is not defined.
How long is too long while suspended in a full-body harness?
A recent survey found that almost all workers would not want to be left for longer than 15 minutes.
A more scientific study into the matter was performed in 1987 by Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, looking into how long a physically fit person could dangle in a fall protection harness without extreme discomfort. Average times were between 17 and 28 minutes (although they ranged from 3.5 right up to 60 minutes). This tells us that tolerance varies greatly from person to person, and that negative effects from the suspension can set in quickly.
While OSHA Standards don’t specify a time rescues need to be carried out within, they have previously stated “research indicates that suspension . . . can result in unconsciousness, followed by death, in less than 30 minutes.” This language indicates there is a chance that businesses could be questioned or possibly fined for ‘inappropriate or ineffective rescue plans’ if a compliance officer finds there to be negligence in planning to retrieve a fallen worker.
The ANSI Z359 regulations in this regard are slightly more specific than OSHA’s guidelines, encouraging at the very least verbal contact with the victim inside of six minutes. The ANSI regulations also require companies to have written rescue plans in place for each piece of fall protection equipment in use.
Industry has responded to this issue by creating suspension trauma straps which a fallen worker can deploy from their harness to ease the strain on leg and shoulder straps while waiting to be rescued. They are a highly recommended and inexpensive addition to any harness that may be involved in a fall that will result in the worker being suspended for any length of time.
How to Plan Your Rescue Operations
Since ANSI regulations require a written plan for each piece of PPE, the best time to start planning a rescue is when choosing fall protection systems for the worksite. It might be that with the right equipment you can eliminate the need for some rescue operations altogether.
Several types of self-retracting lifelines, for example, can be set to slowly lower a worker to the ground after a fall, eliminating the need for a coordinated response from other members of the team. The quickest and often most effective type of rescue is always self-rescue, followed in most instances by on-site rescue. Calling local rescue teams is often the most time consuming and normally slower than a well-organized internal response.
It’s important to understand that investing in fall-arrest equipment also means investing in rescue planning and training. By purchasing fall safety gear, your company is recognizing the need for worker protection. This protection is not finished when a fall is broken, but when the fallen worker is returned safely to the ground.
Four questions for rescue planning:
1. Who will be executing the rescue operation?
Unless the victim themselves are calling 911, chances are good that rescue operations will begin with on-site personnel. Even if on-site workers call outside assistance, coworkers are still an asset to the stranded worker and must have a plan to evaluate and aid in the rescue operations. Pre-planning that includes local rescue authorities can rely upon on-site workers to assist fire and rescue operations by clearing areas where their vehicles will need to enter, and by making contact with the victim.
It is natural for the on-site workers to want to attempt a rescue. But without a plan, this can be disastrous. With a retrieval plan in place, there can safely be an effort made by company personnel to rescue the victim.
Often rescue operations begin at the same time as emergency services are summoned. The best case scenario is that on-site workers are able to rescue the fallen worker before the emergency services arrive. Furthermore, a plan to keep in contact with rescue services can help give their team orientation to the rescue, saving valuable time and letting them get to work as soon as they arrive.
2. Where will the rescue take place?
By simply considering the various places your workers are exposed to fall hazards companies can get a head start on their site-wide rescue planning. Each area within a work site where fall protection is needed will require its own written rescue plan. If your company has a log book (as it should) covering all deployed fall-arrest equipment, this list can provide a map of all the places that require rescue planning.
3. What kind of equipment do we need?
Rescue operations will vary depending on the type of equipment you use as a fall-arrest system. Essentially, the type of fall-arrest gear will dictate where the victim will be after the incident: A self-retracting lifeline (SRL) positioned above the worker will mean they are still close to the fall site, whereas if a vertical line is attached to a horizontal safety line, the victim’s position could be quite far away from the original fall point.
Some falls that result in injury or unconsciousness may need assisted retrieval and rope rescue training for onsite safety and rescue personnel. Other rescues may be possible with simple coordination between members of a rescue team where one person cuts the worker down, and another one keeps them from falling the remaining distance to the ground. Often rescue kits like the Petzl Rescue Kit are used to lower a worker to safety. Redundant systems are also important in rope rescue and retrieval. Proper and on-going training is generally required for these skills to be properly understood.
4. What are our rescue options for this area?
In addition to written rescue plans and dedicated rescue equipment for each fall hazard site, safety rescue workers need to be aware of their access to medical supplies and other emergency tools. While self-rescue is always best, this is not an option for fall protection rescue planning. Each fall hazard site requires a plan to be developed to return a fall victim safely to the ground in the event that they are incapacitated and unable to help the rescue in any way. Workers need the tools to complete their task effectively and with as little wasted time as possible.
Your Written Rescue Plan:
When a company has considered all the location-specific options regarding their equipment and subsequent rescue plans, it’s important to keep these plans (and any subsequent changes to the plans) written down and organized to document the on-site rescue program. The following is a list of items that should be included:
• Types of rescue equipment available to workers
• Locations of any rescue line anchor points for rope rescue
• How to attach retrieval or lowering lines to a fallen workers’ harness
• Specifics about training required to perform rescue work
• Other site-specific details needed for a safe and successful rescue
A rescue plan must be a living document: It must be updated as new equipment is brought onto the site; it must be read and understood by the workers who will be impacted by the information it contains; and it must be easily understood. A rescue plan that merely sits on an office shelf provides no safety to workers and can, in fact, be a liability to the company.
After any rescue operation it is important to take stock and consider how smoothly the execution of the rescue plan went. Unexpected events or problems during a rescue can be used to improve the plan in the future. These notes should be added to the written rescue document and all workers made aware of the improvements. Mistakes that are made and not noted and corrected are likely to repeat themselves, possibly with worse consequences.
Rescue planning takes time and effort. The benefits of this effort will not be seen on a daily basis. Only in the aftermath of an accident or life-threatening incident will a well-organized rescue plan be considered as valuable to the company as it was to the rescued and their families.